“Why worry about basic obedience when my dog is so scared?” It’s a common and understandable question I get from new clients. When faced with a dog who is scared of people, new stimuli, and unable to settle in and out of doors, it’s natural to think of training goals in terms of big chunks. Clients may say, “I want my dog to enjoy her walks,” or “I want to be able to invite my relatives over to my house without them getting snarled at,” or, “I want my dog to stop being afraid of city noises.” When faced with these serious and overwhelming problems, basic behaviors like hand targeting, sit, “leave it,” and down might seem trivial. After all, the goal is to fix the fear, not teach the dog to do tricks, right?
Not quite. While the overarching goal in every fearful dogs’ training plan is to ease fear, there are, in my opinion, three critical “micro-goals” that must be conquered first.
1) The dog learns her behavior can make good things – really good things – happen in her environment.
Dogs are always gauging whether an environment or stimulus is safe or dangerous. They learn through consequences and associations. Since fear is so easy to install and so difficult to erode, they remember the events and antecedents that precede scary things happening to them. Fearful dogs think many things in their world are dangerous. They don’t necessarily trust that a person walking down the street is safe or that the noise of wind blowing through the trees won’t lead to danger. Because their brains are so occupied by this constant “safe or dangerous” calculation, we need to think in terms of patience and simplicity. Starting a training program with basic obedience behaviors teaches dogs that hand prompts, verbal cues and ultimately, their behavior, leads to safe and rewarding consequences.
In the following video, I teach fearful dog Omie to do a “down” during our first session. Because she had little prior experience with obedience, and was also nervous in her environment and with my presence, I needed to start with a behavior that would be simple enough for her to do. I needed to break that behavior down into small enough increments so she received rewards at a high rate. So, I adjusted my criteria so she was first rewarded simply for moving her head downward, and, though repetition, eventually a full down. In between repetitions, I also added in some easy behaviors that she already knew, like “find it” and hand targeting, to set her up for success and build her confidence.
2) The dog learns coping skills to help her deal with a potentially stressful or fear-inducing situation.
Often, fearful dogs are slow to recover from startling situations. They lack the coping skills that could help them when stress comes their way. What do I mean by coping skills? Anything that lowers a dog’s anxiety and keeps her under threshold. For some dogs, a coping skill could be making eye contact with their owner. For other dogs, it could be a hand target.
The key to teaching coping skills is to give the dogs a history of doing these behaviors in non-stressful environments and giving them impactful, high-value rewards for doing them. When gradually brought into a stressful context, this history of behavior and reinforcement lowers anxiety. Bit by bit, we can turn down the level of a dog’s fear. Fearful dogs don’t do these behaviors on their own to lower their anxiety. Either they haven’t learned them, or they are too upset to concentrate on anything besides their fear. If a dog learns a solid “watch” or a “touch” in a safe space, and realizes that this behavior has a strong reinforcement history, the behavior produces a positive emotional response in the dog. (Think Pavlov.)
By starting with the simplest of behaviors, we can gradually ask dogs to do them in more stressful environments, so that eventually, they are able to focus on a behavior, and receive the positive emotional side-effects, increasing their ability to cope with their world.
3) The dog sets the pace.
In a previous post, I discussed the importance of trust in a fearful dogs’ training plan. One of the most efficient ways to build trust with a fearful dogs is to teach them simple training games and behaviors, and to let them set the pace. Each time a dog gets the behavior right she gets praise and a reward. And because we’re keeping the behaviors simple, she will receive praise and rewards at a very high rate. From a dogs’ point of view, she is learning that you are the purveyor of good things. She also learns that your presence results in safe, positive consequences, not dangerous ones. She learns you will not push her past her comfort zone.
In the same session with Omie, I taught her to target her harness with her nose. She does not yet trust me enough to touch her or place her harness over her head. If I were to push her too fast, I would break our trust. I would not be as safe to her. By keeping things simple she set the pace and let me know when she was ready for a new challenge.
If you have a fearful dog, start small and simple. Don’t discredit the power of basic behaviors and games. Even though a hand target may seem simple to you, it’s a monumental accomplishment for a dog who finds her world a dangerous, unpredictable place.
For excellent support and resources on working with Fearful Dogs, visit FearfulDogs.com.